Lions' Aussie rookie could be first to go from AFL to NCAA to NFL

Aussie Arryn Siposs starred at Auburn after a stint in the Australian Football League and was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Lions. Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It started with a fall in 2014. The grass was wet, and Arryn Siposs lost his footing in the middle of a drill during a preseason December practice with the St Kilda Football Club. He placed his left hand down to brace his impact. When he did, the entire trajectory of his career changed.

The labrum muscle in his left shoulder, which he’d already torn twice before, shifted again, pushing up. In that moment, while processing he’d miss the entire Australian Rules Football season, he realized something else. His career was likely over.

“I was in the last year of my contract and everything like that,” Siposs said. “I just knew it. I tried to enjoy my 12 months knowing what the circumstances were going to be at the end.”

Siposs knew St Kilda would delist him after the 2015 season. He appeared in 28 games over four seasons, scoring 22 goals. At age 22, he had to figure out what was next.

He played semi-pro ball for a year, hoping for an AFL return while also beginning to work on his degree so he could become a physical education teacher. There was a secondary motive.

When he was 16, Siposs first learned about American football on television. He became a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. Like many fans, he paid more attention to quarterbacks and skill position players. Unlike many fans, he knew there was a potential path for him to make it there, too -- punting.

Siposs, signed by the Lions in April as an undrafted free agent, is vying for Detroit's starting punter job, left vacant with the departure of free agent Sam Martin. If he makes it, Siposs can become what is believed to be the first Australian to go from being a professional in the AFL to college and then a pro in the NFL.

Nathan Chapman had a similar experience. A former Australian footballer with Brisbane and Hawthorn, he learned how to punt and tried to make it in the NFL, spending time with Green Bay in training camp in 2004.

Then he returned home and created a program to teach Aussies punting to help them reach college football or the NFL, founding Prokick Australia in 2007. By the time Siposs reached out in 2016, Chapman had already built a reputation for placing players in college football programs.

Siposs was interested. Chapman brought him in for a workout.

“I knew he was talented for us, our evaluation is not about how good you are or consistent or how clean,” Chapman said. “It’s what’s the base level of mechanics and what’s the base level of power that you’ve got.

“If we know what our program is to work over 12 months, so from where he started from it was like, you watch him kick one or two balls and you’re like, ‘Yeah, this will be fine.’"

Siposs possessed the ability and temperament as a former professional athlete to make the transition. He had to essentially relearn how to catch and kick. For Aussie rules, you typically catch the ball with your fingers toward the sky and your thumbs down for the release with a lower drop and kick.

Siposs had to catch with his thumbs up and fingers down, creating a different shape, flip the laces and then time the drop so he could kick the ball flat and six inches higher.

Miss by a fraction of an inch and you lose control.

“There’s no doubt I was questioning myself early on, like what am I doing right now,” Siposs said. “I cannot kick this thing to save myself. Why can’t I do it the way I want to do it? Things like that. Then all of a sudden, I remember the session I was down there and it completely clicked. All of a sudden I was getting a great rhythm, following through really nicely, toe pointing out, the ball is over my right leg."

It took three months to learn and another six to nine to perfect. In the process, Chapman also started inquiring with American colleges about a need for a punter.

Chapman treats recruitment like ordering a pizza. He asks college coaches what they want, from style of punter to type of punts while also understanding the nuance and intensity of the college game. He tries to match one of his students -- around 45 at any given time -- with an interested college. He considers mental makeup, academics, location, coaching staff and style of play before making a recommendation.

Chapman knew Siposs could handle the rigors and pressure of high-level college football. Auburn needed a punter. He offered up Siposs. The Tigers were interested and wanted him to come on an official visit in November 2017. Siposs essentially asked, "What’s Auburn?"

“I had to look it up straight away going, ‘Oh my gosh, where is it,’" Siposs said. “What’s the history? I was completely dumbfounded about the school and its tradition.”

Siposs and his then-girlfriend, Rachael Green, already had planned a trip to New York for December so they worked in a short detour to Alabama. It turned out to be a big trip. During an afternoon riding bikes in Central Park, Siposs proposed to Green. Siposs found a college to play for -- and came back with his future wife.

“I make jokes now that, ‘Did you just do that so I would come over here with you? So I’d actually move,’" Rachael said. “But he assured me he had been designing the ring at a jeweler with my mom for many months beforehand, so that was always going to happen."

Arryn and Rachael landed in Los Angeles from Melbourne in July 2018, picked up their dog, went to the beach and then started a week-long drive from LAX to Auburn. They figured it was a way to see their new country, stopping in Phoenix, New Orleans and Houston as they worked their way to their new home.

When they arrived in Auburn and got the keys to their condo, they went out and bought a rug, got takeout and sat on the floor together to eat dinner. They realized the gravity of what they’d done.

“We’re like, ‘This is huge. What we’ve done here is huge,’" Rachael said. “We haven’t come and moved into the dorms. We’ve done this together, moved into an empty house with nothing, and we just didn’t know where to begin.”

Even though they were in a country speaking the same language, they still felt foreign. Arryn immersed himself in football training camp five days after arrival. Rachael finalized a communications job -- she worked at BMW in Australia -- and the typical getting-settled amenities.

The adjustment was still tricky. Arryn was 24 and Rachael 26, so they were older than their Auburn peers. And many people they encountered had never met anyone from Australia. Further, cuisine was a challenge as their stomachs struggled with a heavier diet of southern, fried food -- turning them into frequenters of Kroger and Publix in town for leaner, healthier options.

On the field, however, Siposs’ transition was smooth. He won the punting job early in 2018 and averaged 44.2 yards per punt with 17 landing inside the 20-yard line, earning honorable mention All-America honors from Pro Football Focus. The immediate success made him think the NFL could be a possibility.

After the season, he and Chapman talked and laid out a 12-month plan to potentially land him there -- everything he needed to do before games, in workouts and off the field with the goal of having him join fellow Prokick graduates Michael Dickson and Mitch Wishnowsky in the pros.

He averaged 43.8 yards per punt with 16 inside the 20 and 27 fair catches last season -- slightly down numbers. He was also used on perhaps the most well-known play of the year for Auburn, a fake punt near the end of the 2019 Iron Bowl, drawing penalties for Alabama and the ire of Alabama coach Nick Saban -- a play Siposs laughs about now because there was no way he was ever running a route, AFL experience or not.

“The DB was showing no respect to me whatsoever,” Siposs said. “He knew exactly what was going on. I was going to swap with the quarterback and get the center to snap it to me, and I was going to kick it as far as possible knowing they weren’t going to have a returner in the backfield.”

It would be one of his final college plays. Siposs turns 28 in November. His age, combined with two strong seasons, led him to leave Auburn with a year of eligibility remaining to try to make the NFL.

A surprising combine invite gave him a chance to showcase his ability –-- more valuable this offseason considering in-person workouts were canceled due to COVID-19 -- and caught the attention of teams.

He and his agent, Bruce Tollner, focused on three teams where they thought Siposs would have a legitimate shot at a roster spot: Atlanta, the New York Jets and Detroit.

Siposs didn’t know much about Detroit or the Lions when he signed, only that they had a vacant job and liked what they saw from an atypical NFL rookie. Siposs started researching, learning about Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson and the industrial nature of the city.

While Arryn Siposs is working to earn a job in Detroit, Rachael Siposs will stay at hers in Alabama. If he makes the team she’ll move up to Detroit soon after.

“We were excited by the adventure,” Siposs said. “In the end, it was just an adventure for us to come out and witness something different. Not many people I know have done what we’ve been able to do and just completely change our lives and come over here and witness something different. It’s been amazing.”